|At first Lorena Ochoa comes across as an introvert, but to those who know her, she has plenty of personality. (John Mummert/USGA)
By Andrew Blair
Golf’s fastest-rising star finally did something she hasn’t done for much of 2008 at the McDonald’s LPGA Championship: trail a fellow competitor.
Hold off on the alarms, though. The 26-year-old Lorena Ochoa, who had been chasing her third straight major championship and the ‘Ochoa Slam’, started the major with a 3-under-par 69 and well within reach of the first day co-leaders Emily Bastel and Lorie Kane at Bulle Rock Golf Club in Havre de Grace, Md. In the end, though, Ochoa (1-under total) couldn’t pull it out, finishing three strokes behind Yani Tseng.
Ochoa undoubtedly enters the Women’s Open, set for June 26-29 at Interlachen Country Club in Edina, Minn., as one of the odds-on favorites to answer the demands of a USGA setup. The question is: Will history be calling?
Ochoa broke through for her first major last year, winning the British Open at St. Andrews. Since then, the powerful 5’6 player has become golf’s most ascendant star, winning six times in nine starts in ’08. That includes taking the season’s first major, the Kraft Nabisco Championship, to set up the Grand Slam possibility.
It’s not a stretch to say she’s carving out history. There hasn’t been a competitor to capture two consecutive majors in a year when four have been contested. Only ’81 Women’s Open winner Pat Bradley has claimed three straight over two years.
Despite being in an unfamiliar place, trailing after the first round, unmistakably the Grand Slam is very much on Ochoa’s radar.
"Of course, I think it’s possible and I have it in my head," said Ochoa. "Those things only happen a few times in your career and here I am. I’m going to make sure I give it a good try."
Appropriately bearing a ‘Superman’ headcover on her driver, Ochoa’s recent performances have been worthy of a superhuman label, having won 20 times since April 15, 2006. It has pushed her career victory total to 23 wins.
Recently, Ochoa has been booming it off the tee. Her wallop drives come to rest 20 to 30 yards past the next-nearest ball. In ’08, she’s blown past fellow competitors in Tiger Woods-like fashion, winning by margins of 11, seven, five (first major of the season at Nabisco), 11 and three strokes before registering a one-stroke win at Sybase two weeks ago. She missed last week’s GINN Tribute presented by Annika due to the death of an uncle.
There is so much about the personable Ochoa for golf fans to like. Foremost among them, her philosophy that success is earned and not an entitlement. She’s exemplified that stance since turning professional.
Today, she can’t escape the spotlight. The affable, humble Ocho, is as conversational around maintenance workers as she is with the media.
With scads of followers watching her every move, Ochoa is unfazed and somewhat humbled by autograph seekers’ shrieks of ‘Lorena! Lorena!,’ as programs, hats and posters from a line three deep awaited her after she signed her scorecard following the LPGA Championship’s first round.
Later, facing a jammed media contingent Ochoa, undoubtedly worn from a sweltering day, started her after-round conference with, "What’s up?" It elicited laughs from nearly the entire press crew. Revealing her grounded nature, she seems comfortable in her place atop women’s golf, unlike some former world No. 1s who seemed too distant, out of reach or businesslike while at the top of the sport.
"There’s a little sort of Phil Mickelson, Arnold Palmer flair there with Lorena," said former LPGA Tour player turned-commentator Dottie Pepper.
With former Women’s Open winner Annika Sorenstam announcing her plans to retire after the season Ochoa, recently called "the quietest superstar in sports" by a Baltimore Sun columnist, will soon become the LPGA’s chief marketer. She will be the face that most cameras follow and the name the LPGA sells to sponsors.
Statistically, Ochoa’s numbers and records compare favorably to Sorenstam’s, having nearly doubled the Swede’s win total when she was 26.
And Sorenstam knows she’s leaving the game in the hands of one of its top tenants.
"She has developed a lot as a person and as a player, and she’s a great asset to the Tour." Sorenstam said. "It’s just fun to see. That’s another reason why I feel like my timing of stepping away is good, is that the Tour is in great hands."
For now, Ochoa seems intent on continuing her craving for winning, leading up to the season’s third major. The winner’s circle hasn’t been hard to find for Ochoa, who claimed five of her first six events this year.
"I want to break a few records and I’m going to keep…working hard to make sure that I continue in the next few tournaments," said Ochoa, who became the fastest LPGA Tour player to reach the $12 million plateau following her victory at Sybase. "I have so many motivations."
Refreshingly, not all of her goals are golf-related. The deeply religious Ochoa grew up comfortably in an upper middle class environment in a not-well-to-do country. Ochoa, who says she wanted to be the world’s best golfer since she was "12 or 13," is also on a mission to improve the lives of residents in her native Mexico.
Her efforts are already in full swing. A foundation that bears her name has built three schools at La Barranca in Guadalajara that’s giving hope to impoverished children, something a country’s icon like Ochoa can’t accomplish solely by knocking in 12-footers all day. Her work translates to golf as well. Ochoa and her coach, Rafael Alarcon, have opened the Ochoa Golf Type Academy, Guadalajara’s first practice range that has been home to more than 80 youths who take part in the instructional programs.
She was recently selected as one of Time Magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world for her life-enhancing works; tour Hall of Fame member Nancy Lopez authored the accompanying article in the aptly-named "heroes and pioneers" segment of the listing.
"As a professional golfer, Lorena will continue dominating and breaking records for years to come," Lopez wrote. "As a humanitarian, she has already left an indelible mark. Just ask any one of the children at La Barranca who squeal in delight when Lorena's name is mentioned."
Lopez was inducted into the Hall of Fame when she was 30. Though she’s played in far more events in comparison, Ochoa gained admittance to the Hall earlier this year before frenzied crowds at the Carona Championship in Mexico, and was four years younger than Lopez was at the time of her historic accomplishment. (Ochoa must fulfill 10 years on the Tour to gain official admittance.)
Though she may be understated at times, Ochoa’s accomplishments – on and off the golf course – have earned the admiration and respect of her fellow players.
"Just being who she is – she’s give you the shirt off her back if you needed it," three-year tour veteran Brittany Lincicome told the Richmond Times-Dispatch last month. "It’s great to see someone so nice who plays so well and never gets cocky about it. She’s definitely a role model for every kid, every adult, everybody out there who cares about golf."
Unafraid to show her vulnerabilities, Ochoa admittedly is still continuing her pursuit of mastering the intricacies of the English language, and uniquely, is able to laugh and allow both friends and complete strangers to come along for the ride.
Like many things along her memorable and sometimes remarkable journey, her grammar has improved since entering the University of Arizona as a freshman in 2000, a topic she likes to poke fun at, putting her self-deprecating sense of humor on full display.
"I wanted to study psychology and I went into a few classes and I couldn’t understand a word, so I have to change to PE and basketball. I understood and I learned the class, but my grammar was zero. You cannot turn in a paper and have three words.
"I think everybody makes fun of me and they don’t teach me," Ochoa chuckled.
Early in her professional career, Ochoa wasn’t known as much for her philanthropy as she was her struggles during tournaments’ key moments; she won three events during her first two years, but she was across the line and quick from the top in heated closing moments, some argued. Uncomfortable whispers of "Ochoka" followed.
As a 22-year-old, she let a late lead slip at the 2002 Michelob ULTRA Open at Kingsmill and wept post-round. She also faltered during the closing stages of the 2005 Women’s Open at Cherry Hills, duck-hooking her tee shot into a water hazard at the last hole to eventually finish four back of eventual national champion Birdie Kim. At the time, Ochoa called it the most disappointing time on a golf course.
Those days of uncertainty with her swing seem a distant facade as she begins to rewrite women’s golf record books.
"Before, I had a lot of trouble with my swing getting under pressure," said Ochoa. "I used to hit some bad shots that put me in trouble, and I think I’m better on that and I have more control of my swing. I don’t have those bad shots, especially when I’m under pressure of closing a tournament on a Sunday.
"I think it’s all about the experience and you need to do it by playing. You don’t learn that [from the] outside."
Even though she won’t pull off the "Ochoa Slam" – yet - accomplishments still await.
Andrew Blair is a freelance writer whose work has appeared previously on www.usga.org.